A Long Way To The Top: The Climbers of India

A Long Way To The Top: The Climbers of India

Written by

Prabha Behera

Like most young millennials (I assume), my first introduction to rock climbing was during my middle school summer camp. They’d set up a climbing wall complete with colourful holds, and harnesses and we would take turns struggling to climb up and learning to rappel down a 5 foot wall. I do remember enjoying it - it was new, it was fun, I could make fun of my friends for falling, my friends could make fun of me, and we had juice boxes and snacks waiting for us at the end of the climb. 

Yeaaars later, one of the first full-scale community events I collaborated on was an all-women team climbing/bouldering competition at BoulderBox, a wonderful bouldering facility setup by Vrinda Bhageria, who we spoke with for our first ever Women In Wellness Journal. Women with varying levels of experience with bouldering, and fitness levels mapped different bouldering courses, and also tried their hand at slacklining! You could hear roars of support from the teams, and instead of juice boxes, the participants were greeted with protein smoothies. 

Both times, I had the same question in my mind - why don’t more people do this? Fuelled by this curiosity I set out to learn everything I could about rock climbing in India.

Due to its strategic location between the Himalayas and Indian Ocean, India has an extensive range of natural climbs. But those who live in metropolitan cities, a good ways away from the closest hill range, can get their fix at a number of indoor bouldering gyms that are popping up across the country. And with varied topography throughout the country, climbers can get their pick of the lot with rock or ice climbing. 

Climbing, rock or ice, is not a popular sport in India yet, but there are some amazing climbers who are paving the way, and helping popularise the sport among young India. We spoke with some of them to learn more about their passion for climbing, and what climbing looks like in India. 

Gowri Varanashi

Climber and Nature Educator

Gowri Varanashi

Climbing Playlist: The songs I hear in the outdoors are the bird calls and sounds of insects, which inspires me every time I climb in nature! I don’t usually listen to music before I climb unless music happens to be playing at an indoor climbing gym for example. If I have to list a type of music though, it would be anything catchy and with beats to get me excited for the climb.

Credit: Praveen Jayakaran 

Gowri began her rock climbing journey some 9 odd years ago, citing her love for being outdoors, within nature as one of the main reasons. It’s one of the reasons she continues to climb to this day! 

Another major reason for her is that she’s able to work her entire body out while climbing, starting from the brain. “A lot of strategy and problem-solving skills are involved in mapping out a climb. There are moments during a climb where you have to stop and carefully think about your next step to get to the next hold. And then executing that move on a vertical rock face involves your entire body, making climbing a complete workout outside of the typical gym.

More than anything it teaches me about myself, it helps me build confidence in myself, it teaches me to overcome fear and it shows me I can do things I would have never imagined I am capable of doing.”

Since her first attempt, Gowri has climbed various rock faces in different parts of the world. 

Most notably her journey across the 20m long “French Indian Masala” which earned her the title of the first Indian woman to climb a route graded 7b+.

She recalls a time when she, along with a friend, attempted to scale up a 250ft cliff on a route called High Exposure in the US. “My friend who had gone up ahead of me, quietly said to me as I got closer to the top that a Peregrine falcon was awaiting my arrival. I thought to myself, it will probably fly away as I climb out the top because I was being noisy, but to my surprise, the falcon sat there within a foot of me and just looked at me. It was a beautiful moment between me and the falcon as the sun set, on top of a huge cliff I had just climbed.” 

Climbing is still a relatively lesser known activity in India, with mostly male frontmen. One of the biggest challenges for Gowri, like most other female climbers coming up in the 2010s was not knowing too many women outdoor climbers, but that took care of itself in 2017 when she met Prerna Dangi, Vrinda Bhageria, Lekha Rathinam, and Mel Batson

Finding a community, and a safe space to learn and grow with women, and understanding what those relationships meant was enough inspiration for them to come together under Climb Like A Woman (CLAW) - a climbing platform that creates a positive and encouraging space for women to learn and grow with climbing. 

“We all had the passion for climbing and shared a common goal of wanting to get more women into the sport and so when I shared my idea with them, we were all excited to come together to make the idea a reality. So, we started Climb Like A Woman (CLAW) in 2018 with the first CLAW edition in Hampi, India.” 

Gowri remains hopeful about the future of rock-climbing, climbing-based activities in India. “I hope to see more people getting into climbing overall, more women getting into the sport and people putting efforts into developing climbing areas (putting up new routes and boulder problems) in an environmentally friendly way. As of now, our climbing communities are still small so the impact on the environment is not large but as this community grows the challenges that come along with growth will have to be figured out.” 

Jamyang Tenzing

Co-Founder Surufest, Delhi Climbs, and The Crashpad

Jamyang Tenzing

Climbing Playlist:

  • Anything by MC Mawali
  • Anything by Swadesi Crew

“I have always been fascinated by climbing and grew up being the monkey among my friends, climbing trees and scrambling up hillsides.” Jamyang was introduced to structured climbing much later, in his mid-20s when he took a mountaineering course, and it quickly became his mode of expression. 

As he grew, so did his passion for climbing, Jamyang found himself looking for a community space where people could come together to enjoy the sport they love so dearly. Cue Surufest!

“The whole idea behind Surufest was community development and over the years we have maintained our focus on creating a space to unite through nature and sport. It has been a difficult yet a very rewarding and fun journey so far and through this journey we have managed to bring together not just climbers but enthusiasts from various other sports by establishing the right vibe. My team and I have a background in organising treks and expeditions in very difficult conditions which makes general logistics of the fest quite straight forward. “

A huge, huge chunk of the Indian terrain still remains unexplored. Exploring and developing are 2 aspects of climbing that remain incredibly important for Jamyang’s and his team’s mission to this date. 

“Every year we dedicate a couple of months to developing new areas. Sandeep Maity is one of the top climbers in the country and is a key member of my team and over the years we have explored and developed climbing in Sikkim, Darjeeling, Kareri, Dhauj, Delhi, Purulia and  tons in Ladakh. We have plans for many other places also and hopefully we will get there soon.” And if you were wondering what his favourite climb has been throughout all his explorations, it’s a wonderfully named climb called ‘Dragon’s Puff’ - a 7A boulder problem on the dragon boulder in Ladakh. “It’s a beautiful crimpy highball problem which I sent after several attempts over a period of 2 years.”

Climbing globally is a huge sport and now is also a part of the Olympics. The Indian climbing community is definitely on the rise but the athletes still do not have a very secure livelihood due to lack of funds. “I am trying to make climbers more independent financially by pushing the outdoor climbing scene and training them to be good rock guides and mountain guides so that they don’t have to depend on brands and endorsements for their livelihood. So hopefully in the years to come we can achieve this vision and share the love of climbing with others.” 

Prerna Dangi

Rock/Ice Climber and Mountain Guide

Prerna Dangi

Climbing Playlist:

  • Live For Today by The Grassroots
  • Maniac by Michael Sembello
  • Anu Kuni by Polo & Pan

Credit: Praveen Jayakaran

Prerna first took to climbing in college after discovering the Hiking Club. She felt drawn to it because it made her feel strong. “That was soon followed by the realisation that the movement of climbing required a balance of strength, grace, agility and mental prowess which keeps me hooked.” 

And hooked she was! She took off on her first independent climb to the top of North America’s tallest peak, Denali shortly after graduating, at the age of 21. The climb remains one of her favourites to this day, and it’s not hard to imagine why. 

Soon after, she found herself pursuing ice and alpine climbs, and fell upon her first roadblock. “When I started we had to figure it out for ourselves from scratch. There is a bigger community of rock climbers so it feels like you have a safety net. But ice climbing felt like a greater challenge.” 

Even outside of the ice climbing sphere, the lack of a community safe space was a common problem most women climbers faced when they first started out in the early 2010s.

“Climbing is a male dominated sport which appears to rely heavily on strength. When women come into this sport, more often than not, they carry baggage of body image issues and fear of failure.“ Luckily, she found a team of supportive and encouraging women, and made it her mission to never let any other climber, especially women, feel unsupported.

When asked about the future of climbing and bouldering in India, Prerna said “I hope to see more people give climbing a try and to experience it outdoors, better infrastructure and a community to support that and definitely more women in the scene.”

Abhijeet Singh

Climber, Photographer and AcroYogi

Abhijeet Singh

Climbing Playlist:

  • Children Of The Grave by Black Sabbath
  • Thunderstruck by AC/DC
  • Killing In The Name by Rage Against The Machine
  • Electric Pow Wow by A Tribe Called Red
  • Babel by Gustavo
  • Vengeance by Zack Hemskey

Abhijeet found himself at a crossroads in June 2013 after years working in the field of marketing after realising it no longer stimulated him creatively in the way he wanted to, ultimately deciding to quit in favour of something he was truly passionate about - photography and climbing.

“My unique ability is to climb and shoot at the same time. In any adventure sport, to share experiences, the stories of expeditions in remote places, and to get the most telling

pictures, one needs to be in the middle of the adventure, has to play the sport and be good at it while trying to capture the experiences and stories, so that others can vicariously live these adventures through this body of work. This gives me the drive to pursue my work and my passion.” He has built a collection of expedition photographs taken in the Indian Himalayas, Ladakh and Sikkim featuring the picturesque mountains, the mountaineers in action, and the stories of their pursuits. 

His work takes him across different topographies, capturing the most beautiful sights, with the most inspiring stories. 

“I feel completing India’s first ascents of two frozen waterfalls in the heart of Spiti Valley in January 2016 and making an ice climbing documentary film, The Fall, made on the same climb could be my proudest moment till date. In July 2017, I climbed a technically difficult mountain CB13 in Lahaul valley, done in proper Alpine style thereby keeping a minimum impact on the mountain, and making a way forward for the alpine style climbing in India. But the one activity that changed the course of my life was my first mountain climb in 2013, a 6130m peak in the heart of Ladakh, Stok Kangri. It was a solo climb in really bad weather, and I still managed to shoot a few pics on the go, on the climb. After going through the pictures which came out from the climb – I had never seen the likes of it before in our country; the story of a sport in its most realistic form - I decided that this is what I’d love to do for the rest of my life. I had then decided the course of my life - I wanted to become an adventure and climbing photographer.” 

Although it sounds like such fulfilling work, I can’t imagine it not being incredibly challenging. But learning about Abhijeet’s escapades made me curious about what he thought was more challenging  to pursue between ice and rock climbing. 

“I think both have their fair bit of challenges, physically and mentally. Rock climbing to me personally is more of a delicate dance on the rock where movement and flow takes the cake. There are techniques, so much learning and practice that you can do from the climbing gym itself. But ice climbing requires a more hands-on approach. Here you have to spend a lot of time on the actual ice, at least in our country since we don't have any ice climbing gyms here yet. Another challenge physically would be the extreme terrains. In rock climbing, the weather is usually neither too hot nor too cold, or at least you can pick a climbing place depending on your preferred weather conditions. But ice climbing can only happen when the temperature is below -15 usually, where you have to deal with extreme elements, even when you are not climbing. And to climb in such conditions, regardless of the person’s strength or techniques, it can be comparatively more challenging than rock climbing.”

Having spent the past decade travelling, exploring and documenting all the country has to offer, Abhijeet finds himself hoping for the future of climbing to be more sustainable. 

“If you're travelling in the Himalayas to climb or even to explore, the first thing would be to leave no trails. There should be a strict leave no trails policy, meaning that no one should create nuisance in terms of throwing trash, or littering around. Similarly, one should respect the local culture and not be noisy. “

He also hopes that climbers, and people in general take to alpine and mountain climbing the same way they’ve taken to bouldering and rock climbing. 

“I understand that because it’s comparatively easier to dive into all this because of the easy investment. All you need is a pair of shoes, chalk bag and crash pad and you’re good to go. Plus there are boulders literally in every part of the country, hence the ease of accessibility and less investment. 

Mountaineering in India is still limited to guided expedition style mountaineering. I would like to see more people getting into the technical side of mountain climbing where you need to be equipped with good technical skills in rock climbing, endurance and ice-climbing. So I hope Alpine Climbing, as a sport, also grows in India.” 

After spending the past couple of months interviewing and working on this piece, I can’t say I’m more inclined to try out the sport for myself, but I do have a deeper level of understanding and respect for everyone who does take it up. It’s not going to be easy, but I hope we get to see more inspiring climbers taking on the climbs of the world. It’s a long way to the top if you wanna rock ‘n’ roll!

More Reading